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Anatomy of a Cult Cab (and the top 3 Napa wineries to visit)

Luis Anaya

Luis Anaya

Sep 13, 20215 min read

In the mid-1990s, the iconic winemaking houses Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, and Bryant Family, kick-started a revolution that would forever change Napa Valley's wine scene: the cult wine phenomenon.

In the mid-1990s, the iconic winemaking houses Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, and Bryant Family, kick-started a revolution that would forever change Napa Valley's wine scene: the cult wine phenomenon.

So, what exactly makes a "cult wine"?

ūüć∑ Small batch & high-quality:¬†cult wines are produced in very limited quantities, usually never more than a few hundred cases per batch. Cult producers run efficient¬†small-scale artisanal operations: they're either local families of the winemaking tradition with a few planted acres, or savvy self-taught enthusiasts that experiment in their garages. For some special batches, "flying winemakers" - traveling consultants that bring their expertise to various estates - oversee the viticulture and vinification process.

ūüíį Expensive, rare & exclusive:¬†intentional scarcity and rave reviews by top wine critics fuel the high demand for cult wines. To acquire a bottle, collectors and wine enthusiasts have to put their names down on long waiting lists. New batches are usually already sold out before they're made available to the public. In the secondary market, the price tags of these high-end bottles can skyrocket into the thousands of dollars.

ūüćá Red red wine:¬†cult wines are, with very few exceptions, made with red grapes. Napa's most popular cult bottles are of the Cabernet Sauvignon variety - hence the nickname "cult cab". This grape grows in over 50% of Napa's vineyard acres and was responsible¬†for¬†the catapulting the Valley to its "mecca of the New World wines" status in the mid-70s.

ūüí£ Fruit bombs:¬†most cult wines are characterized by their very distinct Californian style, often daringly breaking the rules set by the Old World winemaking traditions. Cult Cabs are highly fruit-extracted wines, with big, ripe, and assertive bodies, and a high alcohol percentage.

ūüĆé American spirit: although it has inspired similar traditions in other New World wine regions, the cult wine phenomenon is intrinsically Californian.

Napa's O.G. cult wineries are not open for visitors and their products are virtually inaccessible for outsiders: neither headquarters tours nor tasting room events are offered and their buyers waiting lists are exclusive for members.

Nevertheless, in the last few years a group of maverick winemakers have been striving to overthrow the gatekeeping snobbery that permeates California's traditional cult wine scene. These young-spirited and innovative wineries follow the cult wine production and flavor practices of their predecessors, but are committed to run businesses in a way that is more accessible to "outsiders": bottlings can actually be bought from them at reasonable prices that hover around the low three-figures and they allow visitors to make paid appointments for tasting experiences at their facilities.

These are the three new guard cult wineries that any oenophile should add to their Napa bucket list:

1. Promontory: established in 2008 by William Harlan - founder of the quasi mythical cult brands Harlan Estates and BOND - The Promontory winery is his most accessible and affordable project to date, offering tasting experiences reservations for $200 a person. Their bottlings are still expensive at around $800 and their allocation lists can be long, but they're the closest most wine enthusiasts will get to tasting a Harlan bottling without having to wait many years or spending a small fortune.

2. Hunicutt: located in Saint Helena, this small family winery produces a surprisingly wide range of red grape varieties bottlings at fair prices. Most bottles can be bought on their website and their mailing list for future releases is open to the public. Tasting experiences in their beautiful facilities cost $75 per person (this fee is waived if the visitor purchases 3 bottles). 

3. Quintessa: one of the most respected producers of Napa Cabs, Quintessa Estate's red wine 750ml vintage bottle sells for $210 and was given an impressive 99 score by the wine critic James Suckling. They allow visits to their 280-acre estate and host a variety of tasting experiences (from $95 to $195 per person) in their deliciously modern and minimalist indoor and outdoors facilities.

Want to learn more about the ever-evolving Napa wine scene? Visit their amazing dedicated website. You can also check out our destination page for more information on what other experiences this beautiful area has to offer, or plan your dream trip to America's most renowned wine region by dropping us an enquiry.